Songs for the Flames

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

August 5, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Juan Gabriel Vásquez's new story collection, Songs for the Flames. Vásquez‘s previous books include the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner and national bestseller The Sound of Things Falling, and Man Booker International finalist The Shape of the Ruins, as well as the award-winning Reputations, The Informers, The Secret History of Costaguana, and the story collection Lovers on All Saints’ Day.

Two days after his disappearance, when his ex‑wife’s anxious questions began to circulate on social media, his friends all agreed that Sandoval, after saying goodbye to us, had gone to see his new girlfriend, an indefatigable twenty-something with tattooed ankles he’d been going out with for a few months, and it wasn’t improbable that the night would have gotten out of hand and ended up in some permissive hotel, among empty rum bottles and bare feet kicking them and ghosts of cocaine on glass tables. (His friends knew these kinds of excesses, tolerated them and sometimes judged them: hypocritically, since we’d all participated in them at least once or twice.) But on social media it quickly became obvious that nobody had seen him, not the new girlfriend, not his mother or the neighbors, and the last thing anyone had heard was from a taxi driver who’d waited for him first thing in the morning in front of a north‑end bank, yellow door open like a wing and motor running, while Sandoval withdrew more bills than seemed advisable for a person to carry in our relentless city. People thought he’d been kidnapped; they talked about the millionaire’s stroll, and we had to imagine Sandoval traveling around the city and withdrawing from the cash machines as much money as his generous card limits would allow, and then returning on foot, terrified but safe, from some unfathomable wasteland along the Bogotá River. Social media also brought us messages of solidarity or help, descriptions of Sandoval—five‑foot‑nine, very short prematurely graying hair—and good wishes written with words that were not optimistic, it’s true, but not yet tragic; however, some were already suggesting scenes in which his attackers had followed Sandoval from the bank, waiting to catch him alone and steal his money, his watch, and his cell phone before shooting him in the head.

Alicia, Sandoval’s ex‑wife, worried from the start more intensely, or at least more publicly, than we would have expected. They had met at university, shortly before Sandoval dropped out, and in their marriage there was something like a subtle imbalance, for she always seemed to be towing him along. It was her idea that Sandoval should set up an investment firm, and she was the one who brought in the first clients and hired the best accountants, she was the one who found the shared office space, to save on expenses, and who convinced Sandoval that it didn’t matter if the office was old, since an atmosphere of plate glass and wood tables smelling of furniture glue wasn’t a problem if people left the office with more money than they had when they’d arrived. Everyone always thought Alicia deserved someone better than Sandoval, and the first hours of his disappearance were moving because of that: seeing her, a woman who was much more solid than he was, more worldly and much more lively, using all the force of her sadness to worry about a guy like our friend: unstable, evasive, always on the move, as if someone were chasing him.

It quickly became obvious that nobody had seen him— the last thing anyone had heard was from a taxi driver who’d waited for him first thing in the morning in front of a north‑end bank.

Then we learned that the banknotes had safely reached their destination. “The cash was to pay us,” his most recent secretary said later, when the interrogations started. At about half past eight, the woman had arrived at work to find envelopes with the names of the eleven employees written in the boss’s hand (those backward‑leaning letters, as if struggling through a headwind); later it was revealed that Sandoval had not just paid them for the current month but the next two as well, and that was enough to make many on social media claim he had already made a decision, although nobody knew the nature of it. About what happened from that moment on—the cash machine moment, as it immediately became known—nothing was known either; Alicia kept us informed of the investigations, of the reports made to baby‑faced, bored police officers, of the fruitless searches first of the hospitals and then of the morgues, and also of the anguish of little Malena, who had noticed everything and begun to cry clandestine tears under her tulip blanket. And we wrote to each other deep into the night, simply to share the insomnia of uncertainty.

On the third day after his disappearance, the meticulous social networks brought us a piece of news that confirmed the vilest suspicions: Sandoval had left the country. The pressure of tweets eventually reached the proper ears, and a benevolent magazine revealed on the internet some images of precarious quality in which Sandoval, or someone who looked very much like Sandoval, approached an Immigration window and raised his head, as if to crack the bones in his neck, while a border guard was stamping his passport. We’ll never know if at some moment he really thought he could go unnoticed, but it’s quite probable he did, because otherwise he would have made more of an effort to hide. On social media an argument soon got under way between two sides: if Sandoval was fleeing from something, some said, he would have disguised himself, would have hidden, would have worn a jacket with a hood or a baseball cap or a broad‑brimmed vallenato hat or at least a pair of dark glasses to conceal his face from impertinent and ubiquitous cameras; that he hadn’t done so, others held, was simply proof that he believed himself and always had believed himself to be above the law, an untouchable, an owner‑of‑everything, a member of that class that had been raised with the profound conviction that the country was an enormous estate and they were the overseers.

Alicia wore herself out in vain appeals for respect. She claimed (we saw her claim) that nobody had proof that he’d done anything wrong and in any case there still hadn’t been any sign of him, even if she’d seen what the cameras had seen. The family then issued a statement to announce that Sandoval was still officially missing, since, in spite of having tried all possible means of getting in touch with him, neither his ex‑wife, nor his mother, nor his friends had received any kind of news, nor had he acknowledged receipt of any of our messages. Some on social media were already insulting him for his lack of consideration, for seeing the spectacle of his relatives’ anguish and not reacting in any way, and others wondered how he was supposed to react, if by this point he was probably in the boot of a car with a bullet in his head. The authorities answered the family’s statement with a statement of their own, in which they put on record that Señor Sandoval Guzmán had passed through Immigration at El Dorado International Airport at 7:14 a.m., boarded flight 246, and landed in Washington at 2:39 local time, though they were as yet unable to determine whether he had gone through immigration procedures at Dulles. But as soon as they found out, the statement charitably said, they would reveal the news.

Washington? What reason could Sandoval have for traveling to Washington? Never, as far as our memories of his life went back, had we heard him mention Washington as one of his business destinations, nor could Alicia remember him having any friends or interests there. In a matter of hours new social media groups had started up with names like Support for Sandoval Guzmán in the United States, or Have You Seen Sandoval Guzmán? And there they published photos of men who looked like Sandoval; declarations of Colombians who gave advice (whom to turn to, where to look for him) from their experience as residents in the District of Columbia; theories of what might have happened to him included being in a coma, amnesia, and robbery using scopolamine, which puts people’s will at the service of their attackers and whose victims can move, board planes, and show their passports without anyone noticing they are absent from their own bodies. Someone said they’d seen him in a stadium, someone talked to him in a bar, someone was on a bus with him heading south. And on social media we talked about poor Malena and speculated about her, about what could be going through her head, about what answers Alicia would be giving her (and we wondered how much truth would fit in those explanations, how much fabrication was necessary). But we never responded to an anonymous tweet: Also the guy has an adorable daughter, called Manuela, real sonuvabitch abandoning her like that. No, we never responded, or corrected the name: it was just a few letters, and it wouldn’t have done any good. We did say to each other, though, that Malena was only four, so she would soon forget all of this. But it was also true that on the internet nothing is forgotten, and all this will still be available in ten or fifteen years for the girl, who by then will no longer be a girl, to consult and find out. Because social networks don’t forget anything; only good news, satisfactions, and small or large successes are ephemeral on them, while mistakes and guilt and different blunders and careless words, all these things stain a life, remain alert, crouching and ready to jump out in front of us. The stain does not disappear, can never be completely washed away, though we can hide or disguise it, and it only needs to come into contact with the right substances to resurface again on the pristine fabric of our life.

The news began to circulate during the night. It was the first thing we saw in the morning, which for some began before the sun rose. Sandoval had turned up dead in a hotel room, in Jacksonville, in the state of Florida. It seemed he’d arrived there by bus from Washington, passing through Raleigh and Fayetteville and Savannah, on an 18‑hour trip with no known destination. In the hotel he ordered a hamburger and a glass of wine, and after he’d eaten he’d put the tray with the leftovers out in the hall beside door number 303; and then in pencil he’d filled in the breakfast request form, the one you must hang outside before a certain hour so someone will wake up the guest with their food. He put crosses in the boxes for coffee and orange juice and fried eggs sunny‑side up; in the box for serving time, he ticked 7:30. And then, in his underwear and T‑shirt, he got in between the sheets and swallowed a jar of sleeping pills with a bottle of water from the minibar. The television was on when they found him, but nobody knew what program he’d been watching when he fell asleep. We would find out in time, of course, each one of the details would come to light, but what has still not been revealed, what is still debated (sometimes in very bitter terms: discussions on the internet are heated), are what reasons Sandoval had to flee from his life. For now we could only speculate, as has been happening for some time: embezzlement, proof of unforgivable promiscuity? Will photos of underage girls now appear, obscene text messages, images of erect penises with shameful captions? Or will we maybe discover some sort of dispossession, an irremediable injustice, the condemnatory results of a medical exam, a sentence that could not be appealed? On this we were agreed, at least: it was an escape Sandoval was carrying out or trying to carry out, a reinvention, the start of a new life. He tried to vanish to become someone else or someone new or to leave without bothering anybody, and it’s a shame we hadn’t found him in time, for we might have been able to rescue him, yes, persuade him to come back among us.


From Songs for the Flames by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

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